Alta Mar: Glamour and Groping on the High Seas

“Mysterious deaths on a luxurious ship travelling from Spain to Rio de Janeiro in the 1940s uncover secrets surrounding two sisters who are travelling together.”

Alta Mar is essentially a gorgeous serialized edition of (the excellent unforgettable movie) Murder on the Orient Express –with more women, a bigger cast, on the high seas, with so much sexual assault and misogyny that it’s often hard to notice anything else. The setting for all this is the transatlantic ship, Bárbara de Braganza: a world filled with opulence, luxury, and exquisite jewellery, and a lead actress with the most flawless and consistent chic of-the-era blonde waves I have ever seen. It’s also a world filled with masters and servants; the prejudice and fact-twisting serving as constant evidence of the first and third class divide. The character development depicts the many sides to the relationship between siblings, business partners in a deal gone wrong, multi-layered corruption, the complications of having investors, family loyalty coming into question, and the conflicting opportunities that come with ‘lower class’ citizens who desire a different life.

Most notable, though, is that this show is more glamourous and picturesque than it has any right to be –than any show has the right to be! Everything from the wide shots of the ship out at sea to the incredible use of lighting to create some of the most dynamic scenes you simply cannot look away from. I was often caught breathless by the brilliance of every frame in the middle of what could have been a simple, mundane shot. The cinematographers continuously give us an endless stream of breathtaking wonder. It’s truly a feast for the eyes.

There’s the suspense and drama of the murder investigation, looming sense of dread and layers upon layers of lies being told by everyone to everyone. The collective desperation to just be on a boat, carefree as intended coupled with the urgent need to just get off this boat is as captivating as those shots. As the episodes progress, so do the brief moments that feel slightly like a Telenovela, but it somehow never feels put on and overdone. Each episode ends with a revelation of a cliff-hanger, after which you simply cannot help but continue to the next one.

And then there is: the sexual assaults. The atmosphere of aggression is as constant and unrelenting as the sway of the ship they’re on. These women are under threat, constantly having their personal space and (right to self) violated –with unwanted kisses, thoughtless groping, casual grabbing and outright dismissal. And those are the instances aside from the plot about domestic abuse, rape and the traumatic aftershock of life after sexual assault.

When watching Alta Mar, I constantly felt the undercurrent of a threat to each women’s personal space and dignity. Just as clear is the sense that this is deliberate, done with purpose. The director films these moments in a way that directs your eye to the context in which a women is being ignored, monitored, or overlooked. We are not given the option look away from violations so brief that it may have gone unnoticed. It’s difficult to watch, but you can tell the creators felt it necessary, and I appreciate that.

The show also, unfortunately, suffers from the dreaded white-girl-leading predicament we so often find ourselves in: There are so many scenes (and at one point an entire episode) dedicated to a story arc that simply did not have to happen. If only these white girls would just take a second to consider someone else’s opinion or the implications of their own convictions. In season one, there is a seriously captivating and intriguing dissection of the idea that women should trust each other and support the other when they can –over men, and often without question. As the stories unravel, so does the audience’s view on what should and should not have been done. Decisions that felt so right in the moment, so moral and admirable, suddenly come into question. At the same time, there’s a lot of the typical ‘I say we do this thing because that’s how I see it this very second. So that is the absolute reality and only truth. I’m gonna do it anyway, you can join me or not.’

As we become privy to the lies, manipulation and provocation behind each character’s intentions, a shifting reality comes to light. The sisters are central to the story, and there is the feeling that they have been so misguided and sheltered that they are pulled back and forth between realities they cannot come to terms with, and inevitably struggle with the decisions to be made. There is unrequited love, bars of gold, blackmail, revenge and deception. But there’s just not enough making out! There is definitely some Romance happening throughout, but it’s so chaste and I don’t understand why!

Overall, it’s been an enjoyable (albeit stressful and angsty) journey watching this show. I’m midway through season two, and it’s feeling equal parts Macbeth and Ouija-board whodunnit. I’m so very interested to see what happens next, and then next after that one, and what happens when (if) they eventually get to Rio.

Content warnings: Season 1: Domestic abuse, rape, sexual assault and harassments, concentration camps, references to a gambling addiction. Worth noting: there is a disfigured character depicted as the bad guy, which feels problematic, but it is actually an integral part of the story and makes sense later on. It’s not just for the sake of playing into vilifying people with disfigurements. Season 2: Conversations about previous rape and domestic abuse. Sexual assault PTSD. Suicide.

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